They say it will be a revolution that marks an era: as we talk of the bronze age and the iron age, in the future people will talk of the graphene age.
Today, in what we might call the silicone age, the appetite for materials which are more efficient from all kinds of viewpoints is constantly mounting, and graphene’s phenomenal potential makes it a prime candidate as a game-changer in numerous fields.
Graphene is the strongest material ever discovered, 100 times stronger than diamond, and 200 times stronger than steel. It's also amazingly flexible, and more conductive than copper, both in terms of heat and electricity.
It consists of a simple two dimensional sheet of pure carbon atoms in a hexagonal lattice in which one atom forms each vertex. Its production was dramatically simplified by two research scientists at the University of Manchester (in part by applying sticky tape to a block of graphite, such as that found in pencil lead)… their work won them the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, underlining the potential implications of this extraordinary nano-material.
The possible applications of this material are so varied and so vital that estimates of its market potential run into trillions of dollars. Numerous countries worldwide are registering dozens of patents relating to its use, headed by Samsung with 210 patens, IBM with 64 and SanDisc with 36.
All of these patents are related to the electronics sector. There are various reasons for this. One of them is that copper wires – which today conduct electricity in computer chips – will reach their miniaturization limit in 2015. Similarly, silicon-based chips, which are currently built on a scale of 22 nanometers (nm), with next generation chips on a 14 nm scale, are fast approaching their own size limitations, estimated at around 5 nm.
Thanks to its strength even at infra-nanometer thickness, combined with its astonishing thermal, electrical, and optical properties, graphene will be the answer to the quest for further miniaturization and will make it possible for computers to continue on their historical path, i.e. doubling in power every two years (Moore's law).
Graphene can also be used, for example, to create local fiber optic networks within a computer, and this will make for faster, more energy-efficient and cheaper computers. In addition – and this is no small issue - graphene being completely non-toxic means that such computers (along with all its other applications) will also be far more environmentally friendly.
This new material can also revolutionize consumer electronics in a big way, especially in the smartphone sector: for example, screens using graphene as their conductive element could be printed on thin plastic instead of glass, thus becoming light, flexible, foldable and – given its incredible strength – practically indestructible.
Potentially, an almost unlimited number of projects could benefit or be developed thanks to graphene, but as with any new and potentially world-changing technology, it will take many years for researchers to discover and refine all graphene applications… or even a small part of them. In addition, a cheap and reliable manufacturing method for making graphene in massive, industrial-scale quantities has yet to be devised before its cost becomes competitive with existing materials.
However, investments in graphene research are spiraling upwards, as is the number of related patents registered… and tomorrow those patents could be worth billions of dollars.
Asia is the world's dominant graphene research hub, with China and South Korea holding 43% of global graphene patents (the U.S. has 23%). In addition, six of the ten top patent holders are located in Asia, with four of those being research universities.
Graphene is one of the great frontiers opening up towards the future… a new territory of challenge and power at scientific, industrial, economic and political levels. Well worth keeping an eye on developments there!
The Trillion Dollar Graphene Market